Populationism, School Textbooks in India and the Need for a Comprehensive Review

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“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”


Populationism has been prevalent in the policies of the government since the early years of India’s independence. The inability of successive governments to uplift the socio-economic standards of the people led to an approach towards population wherein population was portrayed as the source of major, if not all, misgivings in India. At times, the population was used as an excuse to mask the real gaps in the journey towards development. This essay attempts to understand how school textbooks served as an instrument in justifying populationism in the policies of the state by overhyping the perils of overpopulation. In addition, the essay tries to explore the alternatives to the Neo-Malthusian approaches to population. The arguments in the essay should not be interpreted as a case against the very idea of over-population, but as a case against using overpopulation as an argument to hide policy failures.

The first part of this essay deals with the portrayal of population in school textbooks. The next part deals with alternatives to the Neo-Malthusian understanding population-development linkages. The essay ends with the final and concluding section.

Section I

The dichotomy between the share of India’s population and its share of land globally provides the first set of enticing arguments to justify populationism. However, the argument quotes statistics out of context and fails to recognize that roughly one-third of landmasses in the world is uninhabitable, and therefore the share of the population in other parts is bound to be higher than the others. The textbooks use words like “evil” to refer to the population and paint population as the source of all social, economic, environmental and political ills. While portraying population as a problem, the textbooks hardly acknowledge the lack of investment in public health, the incidence of chronic poverty and the uneven development in the world. There also seems to be a dominant, yet faulty, assumption in most of the textbooks that the poor breed more and therefore their population needs to be controlled.

The arguments presented in the following sub-sections are based on the book ‘Spectres of Malthus: A Study of Representation of Population in School Textbooks’ by SAMA (2015).

Environment and Population:

The textbooks base their analysis on the assumption that overpopulation is directly linked with the environmental crisis. At instances, population is projected as the cause of deforestation and is linked to the growing needs of the expanding population. However, there is a very little emphasis on the chasm between the consumption patterns of the developed West and the developing East, while blaming everything on population. In addition, the utilization of wood as an export commodity has been conveniently ignored. Thus, it is assumed that agriculture puts pressure on forest resources single-handedly. Furthermore, farmers are blamed for soil degradation and are accused of using faulty methods of agriculture. The underlying assumption is that either indigenous methods of soil preservation do not exist or are ineffective. Ultimately, the assumptions build a case for government intervention in population control under the ostensible motive of environmental health.

Economy and Population:

Textbooks often blame the population for the economic problems that India faces. Population is seen as having a negative impact on employment, and inflation. High population is linked with high rates of unemployment. However, the textbooks hardly explain the structural issues like lack of investment in human resource and infrastructure deficit which have an unprecedented effect on the rate of unemployment. Not only is the demonization of population limited to unemployment rates but also inflation. High population is linked to high demand, which is in turn linked to high prices. The argument is flawed because there are several factors, other than population, which function in the background that affect demand and supply.

In addition, migration to cities is portrayed in a negative light, and more than sufficient emphasis is laid on pull factors while largely ignoring the push factors. Migration is seen as a cause of the creation of slums and slums are seen as the hubs of social evils. There is a wholesale denial about the advantages of slum-economy and the brilliant pieces of works which become possible due to the slum-dwellers.

Latent Eugenics:

Some state board textbooks went up to the extent of implying that the weak and the diseased population must not bear children. The underlying notion behind this is that only healthy parents can breed healthy children. The argument, eventually, boils down to nation building, the need for able-bodied people, and therefore validates state intervention based on the national interest. The high rates of sterilization among the poor, the Dalits, the Adivasis and the minorities is a standard manifestation of the eugenics thought in state policy. A massive sterilization drive during the years of National Emergency (1975) is a case in point.

‘The poor breed more’ Fallacy:

At a superficial level of understanding, there might seem to be an obvious correlation between poverty and high birth rate, but the proposition has no substantial backing in evidence. Moreover, a correlation between poverty and higher birth rate does not establish a cause-effect relationship between the parameters. There is a failure to recognize the inefficiency of the healthcare system, and social ills like child marriage and child labor. The books have manufactured conclusions without a substantial focus on the real causes of poverty, systems of cumulative backwardness in all spheres of life due to poverty, and the failure of land reforms. Therefore, the proposition that the poor breed more is inherently fallacious. Not only is the argument fallacious but also has an element of eugenics agenda in it so that it becomes justifiable to target the poor in state-sponsored coercive population control measures.

The portrayal of Women:

Most books have held women alone responsible for giving birth to children. Not only is the argument myopic but also the one which justifies state role in subsuming reproductive choice of women under the garb of overpopulation. Women have been portrayed as a childbearing entity, and therefore controlling her fertility has been given priority over more fundamental steps like the improvement of healthcare. The books have, without evidence, argued that non-working women breed more. In addition, birth outside marriage is not considered in order to deny the role of the state in providing welfare in such conditions. The population policy is very gender insensitive and, at times, demeans the women. For instance, widow remarriage is criticized by arguing that it would lead to increase in population. Such arguments are nothing but manifestations of insensitivity towards women and faulty understanding of population dynamics due to lack of research. Lack of health care in sterilization camps has led to the death of many women across India. Recently, the death of women in Chattisgarh (2014) exposes the hollowness of our healthcare system on the one hand, and criminal negligence by the doctors on the other. One cannot deny that our school textbooks are instrumental in justification of such horrendous incidents across India.


Textbook narratives on population are deeply entrenched in the political and ideological quicksand. The role of our textbooks in channelizing the thought of several generations of students towards populationism is undeniable. To sum up, the textbooks see population as a problem and advocate population control measures. Finally, the state’s hegemonic agenda is visible in the textbooks. The state’s hegemonic agenda was visible not only in the portrayal of population but also with respect to other issues of historical relevance. Analysing manipulation of historical issues is outside the purview of this article. Nonetheless, a call for an urgent review of the textbooks must be welcomed.

Section II

This section deals with the alternative approaches to understanding the population-development linkage. Since we have already examined the neo-Malthusian agenda of the school textbooks in the previous section, we shall now be looking at population through a historical lens, Marxist lens, feminist lens, and through the lens of demographic dividend and human capabilities.

Historical perspective:

Historical analysis of the population-development linkage makes it clear that there is a limited cause-effect relationship between high population and prosperity of a nation. On the contrary, a decrease in population coupled with colonial exploitation has wreaked havoc in Congo (Pathy, 1976). By the end of the colonial era, the population of Congo dropped to one-third of its pre-colonization population. The same period saw a sustained fall in the standards of living of the people due to the rampant slave trade and drain of resources. Despite being underpopulated, Congo faces a severe food crisis. The above example explains that blaming low standards of living on population size is bereft of historical perspective and that the scholars of developing countries have accepted the arguments of the Neo-Malthusians uncritically (Pathy, 1976). An analysis of imperialism and imperialist exploitation is very important in understanding low levels of development in a nation. Thus, a historical lens equips us to understand population-development linkage more exhaustively.

Marxist approach to population:

The Marxist literature on population is not as vast as neo-Malthusian literature. However, from the limited literature on population from the standpoint one understands that the Marxists are in direct contradiction with the Malthusian natural theorists of population (Pathy, 1975, p.1126). They argue that population is related to socio-economic relations and, therefore, there cannot be a theory on population bereft of the context. Moreover, unlike the Malthusian theory, there is a focus on various factors other than population while formulating the population-development theory. However, Pathy (1976) has argued that there has been little attempt by Marxists to develop the existing arguments on population-development linkage (p.1126). Despite limitations, the Marxist approach has laid the foundation for a much broader understanding of the phenomenon of population and its effect on development.

Feminist Approach:

While few women’s groups are mustering support for the inclusion of women’s issues in the population policies, there is a widespread opposition by other groups because they believed that population policies are inherently “anti-women, anti-poor and racist” (Lingam, 1994, p.85). They argue that the population policies are in inherent contradictions with the feminist principles (Lingam, 1994, p.85). Feminist studies on population are working to expand the definitions of reproductive rights to include not only reproductive health but also harmonious gender relations and a non-hostile environment (Lingam, 1994, p.85). They argue that seeking mere reproductive rights enforce the notion that women’s primary role is to bear children.

The study of population through a feminist lens is picking momentum and has created viable alternatives to the reductionist neo-Malthusian approach.

Human Resource and Demographic Dividend:

Rather than the neo-Malthusian way of looking at population as a problem, some scholars argue that population is the most productive asset of a nation. Such approaches recognize the potential of a trained workforce and its role in nation-building. However, demographic potential can be converted into demographic dividend only by investment in infrastructure, skilling of the workforce, improvement of healthcare, and investment in education and education-related training. The government needs to invest in the capabilities of the people. This approach has now picked momentum in the government discourse, and an emphasis on skilling and demographic dividend can be observed in the policies of the current government. Thus, policy learning is evident.

This approach is consistent with maintaining the human rights of the citizens, unlike the populationist approach where gross violations of human rights occur. On the contrary, investing in the people will only enhance the standard of living and enhance development. There is an urgent need to add focus to our attention not only on population-controlling policies but also on policies of better healthcare and higher standards of living.


We have examined how the textbooks in India portray population as a problem and the cause of all developmental perils in our nation. The textbooks are undoubtedly propagating the neo-Malthusian version of population, which is largely influenced by neo-imperialist ideas. Thus, it becomes necessary for us to recognize the inadequacies of the current approach and expand the horizons of our understanding by employing a balanced understanding of all perspectives on the population-development linkages. To ensure that the new perspectives do not remain confined to the research circles, it is important to revise the content of the books and start broadening the horizons of young impressionable minds. Through this essay, I call for a comprehensive review of school textbooks across all disciplines, and all state and national boards to encourage critical thinking among young minds.

I would like to conclude by expressing an urgent need for a review of school textbooks so that the coming generations get exposed to balanced perspectives on population. We must keep in mind the wise words of François Rabelais; “A child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit.”


Lingam, L. (1994). Women, Population and Development Question. Economic and Political
Weekly, 29(3), 85-86.

Pathy, J. (1976). Population and Development. Economic and Political Weekly, 11(30), 1125-1130.

SAMA. 2015. Spectres of Malthus: A Study of Representation of Population in School
Textbooks in India, New Delhi.

Shiva Kumar, A. K, et al. (edited). 2010. Handbook of Population and Development in India,
Oxford University Press, New Delhi (Chapter 1 by A K Shiva Kumar, pp1-21)

Follow Rakshit Mohan:

Rakshit Mohan is a second-year student at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. His specializations are International Affairs and International Political Economy. He has previously interned at Carnegie India, New Delhi and has a keen interest in Indian foreign policy and Indian politics. He has published articles with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Maritime Executive.